MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Hundreds of Muslims gather today in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for the first prayer service at a new mosque. The mosque had divided the community, and debate over the building coincided with disputes over an Islamic cultural center near ground zero in New York. In Tennessee, the congregation weathered a bomb threat, arson attempts and a court challenge. Now, as we hear from Blake Farmer of member station WPLN, members say the pain was worth the prize after decades in a cramped office space.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: In so many ways, there was nothing special about these prayers.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)
FARMER: But today, after years of protests and roadblocks, the world was watching. The imam called it a day of forgiveness. He also spoke against violent extremism. Some members of the congregation have lived in Tennessee for 30 years or more. As Itemed Refaat removed her shoes to enter the new worship space, she echoed many who say this was a dream that seemed out of reach.
ITEMED REFAAT: Waiting for a long, long time for this dream comes true, so we are so exciting.
FARMER: The $2 million mosque, with its green dome, stands out among the Christian churches tucked into the rolling hills of Middle Tennessee, but like the neighbors, an American flag flies out front. Essam Fathy has been in charge of this building project.
ESSAM FATHY: This is our flag. This is the American flag. We are Americans. If somebody, I mean, cannot see through that, then they need some help.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
FARMER: As late as today, workmen were installing signage in the parking lot, trimming metal posts before planting them in the ground. Last month, there were real questions as to whether the congregation would be able to move in. A local judge told planning officials not to issue an occupancy permit. Opponents of the mosque had convinced the judge that this project was approved improperly. Ultimately, a federal court stepped in. The grand opening is planned in a few weeks, but the first Friday prayers did attract some visitors, like Rebin Omer, who lives in Nashville.
REBIN OMER: I've never actually seen a mosque like this big in America, so it's pretty exciting.
FARMER: There were a few opponents lingering about. One gentleman paced in front of the mosque wearing a hat that said I love Jesus. Another group of men prayed outside the Baptist church next door.
BENNY SUMRALL: It's not what's in that building. It's what comes out of that building.
FARMER: Benny Sumrall says Islam shouldn't get the protection of the First Amendment because it's more than a religion.
SUMRALL: They're political people trying to take over this country, so we're praying against that.
FARMER: Vocal critics like Sumrall have been peaceful, but leaders of the mosque say they have hired private security to patrol the area. Nihad Awad, who's the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, traveled to Murfreesboro to help celebrate. He'd just visited the mosque in Joplin, Missouri, that recently burned. He says he's worried about the safety of American mosques.
NIHAD AWAD: But also we are very, very hopeful that the overwhelming majority of Americans appreciate religious tolerance, and they will make space for every American who wants to live and love his faith.
FARMER: Muslims in Murfreesboro hope their new mosque will get them out of the shadows and become a place where doubters can come to learn about Islam. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
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